Thursday, October 2, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq‘s Shi’ite-led government took command Wednesday of thousands of U.S.-backed mostly-Sunni fighters who turned against al Qaeda, pledging to integrate them into public life in recognition of their help in quelling violence.

About 100,000 fighters, known as Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils, had been under U.S. military supervision and were paid by the Americans for the past two years.

They are now being transferred to Iraqi military control. The first group - about 54,000 fighters in the Baghdad area - came under Iraqi supervision Wednesday and will receive their first payments from the government in November.

Over time, the government plans to find them jobs in the army, police or elsewhere in the public sector.

“The government affirms its commitment to integrate the members into public life so that they take part in building Iraq,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

U.S. officials are watching to see whether the government lives up to that pledge, fearing that if the fighters feel cheated, many of them will turn against the government.

A U.S. military spokesman, Capt. Charles Calio, praised the Sunni fighters, saying they “continue to play a significant role in improving and maintaining security throughout the country.”

Despite government assurances, many of the Sunni fighters remain deeply suspicious of Shi’ite authorities and were distressed when the Americans agreed to transfer responsibility to the Iraqi leadership.

“I consider the transfer an act of betrayal by the U.S. Army,” said Salah al-Ageidi, a 35-year-old fighter at a checkpoint in the mostly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Dora. “I think the government will start to target me and my people after the transfer.”

He said he and his comrades fear retribution from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government as well as al Qaeda. He said many of his fighters have fled Iraq in past weeks. “We are trapped between two enemies,” he said.

Other fighters, however, said they would take the government at its word.

“We have no problem with the transfer, and we are happy to take orders from our brothers in the [Iraqi] army rather than take orders from the occupation army,” said Ali Abdul-Jabar, 30, referring to the Americans.

In the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad, Sabar al-Mishhadani, 30, said he is certain that al Qaeda will intensify efforts to target those who turned against the terrorist movement.

As part of the transfer, monthly income of the fighters is expected to be about $300, the same amount that the Americans are paying. However, the Americans paid more to sheiks and other community leaders who raised their own Awakening Council forces. The Iraqi government has committed to paying everyone the same amount.

Also Wednesday, a car bomb killed four people near a Shi’ite shrine in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military and a hospital official in the city.

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